Barcelona keep in touch with leaders Real Madrid after a 4-2 win over Betis in the last match on Sunday, although they had some problems before finally wrapping things up. The visitors went close a couple of times before Xavi gave the locals an early lead, turning the ball back in to the net after a shot from Fàbregas came back off the post. And although Messi made it two after Alexis set him up a couple of minutes later, Rubén Castro latched on to a pass from Salva Sevilla to get one back, the first away goal Valdés has conceded in the league all season. Seven minutes after the restart half time substitute Santa Cruz levelled the scores, and the visitors held their own until Mario was sent off for a second bookable offence with twenty minutes to go. Five minutes later Alexis picked up Xavi's lofted pass to beat Castro and restore the lead, and with the game coming to an end Messi made sure of the three points from the penalty spot after Dorado blocked Abidal's shot with his arm inside the area.
Athletic Bilbao put in their bid for a return to European football with a 3-0 victory over fourth placed Levante earlier in the evening. Amorebieta headed the first from a Susaeta corner in the tenth minute, and Llorente and De Marcos both went close before Llorente headed in a De Marcos cross with five minutes to go to the break. Levante's best chances came from Barkero either side of half time, and Koné got the ball in the net soon after the restart, only for the strike to be ruled out incorreclty for offside. Muniain could have added to the lead a couple of times after that though, and after Juanfran got himself sent off for a second bookable offence, San José rounded things off with a third header, this time from an Iñigo Pérez corner. With results elsewhere going in their favour, Athletic move up to fifth, now four points behind their opponents in the table.
Málaga drop out of the European spots this week after a 2-1 defeat at Sporting Gijón, the Andalusians having only picked up two points now from their last five games. The locals needed a win to take them off the bottom spots, and Gregory tested Caballero early on, with Novo firing the rebound wide. And with ten minutes to go to the break debutant Gálvez put them ahead when he poked in a wide Cases free kick, the referee turning down appeals for offside. Shortly after the interval Eliseu hit the post, and a few minutes later Gregory cleared off the line from Van Nistelrooy with the keeper beaten. Then with two minutes to go Van Nistelrooy appeared to have saved a point for the visitors, the veteran striker beating Juan Pablo with a shot from outside of the area. However with the game in injury time Trejo picked up Rivera's pass and struck a shot over the head of Caballero to win the game and send the local fans home happy.
Despite the win, Sporting stay down in the relegation zone after the team above them Racing Santander won 0-2 at fifth placed Osasuna. The Pamplona based side had not lost at home all season in the league, but other than a shot by Lamah from wide out they hardly troubled Toño in the first half. Andrés had to keep out Stuani and Munitis though, and with seven minutes to go to the break Stuani put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot after Damìa blocked Acosta's cross with his arm. Flaño fired an easy chance over the bar soon after the restart, but with twenty minutes to go Stuani made sure of the three points with a second penalty after Damià tripped Acosta in the area. It was Racing's fifth win in six visits to the Reyno de Navarra stadium, and with eleven points from their last five games their midweek cup defeat to Mirandés seems less important.
Villarreal are now in next to bottom place after a 3-0 defeat at Atlético Madrid on Sunday lunchtime, their sixth match in a row without a win. Diego Simeone was in charge for the first time in the Calderón stadium, and he saw his new team dominate from start to finish. Turan, Adrián and Falcao all went close in the opening minutes, and with five minutes to go to the break Tiago and Adrián combined to set up Falcao to score from close to goal. Five minutes in to the second half the Colombian striker scored his second of the day from the penalty spot after he was tripped on the edge of the area by Gonzalo, and Adrián, Falcao and Godín could all have added to the lead before Diego controlled Filipe Luis's cross on his chest to fire the third past Diego López. (15.01.12)
Real Madrid came back from a goal down to beat Mallorca 1-2 on Saturday evening, a win which takes them eight points ahead of Barcelona pending their game on Sunday. The islanders were on a high after their epic win in the cup midweek, and Hemed headed them in to the lead from Chori Castro's cross a few minutes before the break. Sergio Ramos came close to equalising before the half time whistle when he headed against the post, but soon after the restart Víctor picked up the ball in his own half and ran on to beat Casillas, only for referee Pérez Montero to rule out the strike for what he considered to be offside. A few minutes later Higuaín picked up Özil's through ball to turn in a shot which hit Tissone and went past Aouate in to the net, and soon afterwards Cristiano Ronaldo almost caught out the keeper with a dipping shot from outside of the area which bounced back off the bar. Ramos got the ball in the net from a long free kick only for that too to be ruled out for a marginal offside, and with six minutes to go Callejón drilled home the winner after Aouate had beaten out shots from Higuaín and Benzema. With one match to go to the mid-point of the season, the victory means that Madrid are sure of the honorary title of winter champions.
Valencia surprisingly lost 0-1 to Real Sociedad in the last match on Saturday, although the gap they have over fourth placed Levante means they are still sure of staying in third place. With midweek cup matches and a long season ahead of them, Emery decided to rest some of his key players. Aduríz got a rare start up front in place of the suspended Soldado, and he went close a couple of times early on. Pablo Hernández tested Bravo with a long shot, and Aduríz headed against the bar from a corner as the locals dominated the first half. Ten minutes after the restart though Griezmann picked up a loose ball outside of the area, and although Rami blocked the young French forward's first shot, he controlled the rebound and lobbed a shot over Diego Alves for what was to prove the only goal of the match. Emery brought on some of his big guns, but Real held on for a win which takes some of the pressure off coach Montanier, heavily criticised after the midweek cup defeat at Mallorca.
Earlier in the evening Sevilla and Espanyol cancelled each other out in a 0-0 draw which left both sides on the brink of the European spots. After three league defeats in a row, and having been knocked out of the cup midweek as well, the locals really needed a victory to boost moral. However despite dominating the first half they were unable to find the target, Kiko Casilla saving from Cáceres and Manu del Moral, and Reyes, Manu and Negredo all shooting wide. Thievy brought a good save out of Javi Varas close to half time in Espanyol's first real attack, and after the restart substitute Perotti went close a couple of times. With the game coming to a close Reyes chipped a shot just over the bar and Galán replied with a first time volley over the top, but in the end both teams had to settle for a point.
Further down the table, Zaragoza stay in bottom spot after they could only draw 1-1 against Getafe. There were serious protests by fans against club president Agapito Iglesias before and during the match, but seconds after local keeper made a first class save from a Güiza header, Lanzaro got above the visiting defence to head a Luis García corner back in to the net. Roberto was called upon again to keep out Casquero and Abdel either side of half time, but with twelve minutes to go he was eventually beaten when Rafa headed Pedro León's corner towards goal, and Paredes could only turn it in to his own net under pressure from Güiza. Another disappointing result for new coach Manuel Jiménez, and Zaragoza are now six points away from safety pending Sunday's games.
Rayo Vallecano move clear of the danger zone though after a 1-2 victory over Granada. The two teams started level on points, just three above the relegation spots, and Geijo missed an easy chance before Michu volleyed the visitors in to the lead after Trashorras played a long corner back in to the box. Seven minutes after the restart Piti put the visitors further ahead after picking up a return pass from Tamudo before driving a low shot past Roberto, and Trashorras almost caught out the keeper with a shot from a wide angle soon afterwards. Fran Rico pulled one back though with three minutes to go, and although Iñigo López got himself sent off for elbowing an opponent, visiting keeper Dani Jiménez had to be on his toes to stop a Geijo header in the last minute. (14.01.12)